The global market of highly hazardous pesticides

© Fabio Erdos/Panos
Where are those highly hazardous pesticides sold? To answer that question, Public Eye investigated for several months, based on exclusive data. Our research shows that 70% of volumes are sold in low- and middle- income countries.

The efforts made by PAN to develop a list of highly hazardous pesticides represent a first crucial step toward reducing pesticide risks. The next necessary step would be to gain more transparency about the extent of HHP use and the countries where large number of peoples are potentially exposed. As for now, there is very little information publicly available in that regard.

Neither FAO nor WHO provide any information on the sale and use of highly hazardous pesticides worldwide. FAO publishes only very general statistics about pesticide use and nothing on specific substances. Even that information is unreliable because of poor and inconsistent country reporting. Countries tend to publish only general figures about pesticide use on their territory while companies retain information about their specific share in specific markets as confidential business information.

Philips McDougall data

Our investigation is based on the pesticide sales figures produced by Philips McDougall, a private market research firm that presents itself as “the market leader in providing business intelligence for the crop protection & seeds industry”. The Phillips McDougall data, considered among the most comprehensive available on pesticide sales and uses, provided a revealing glimpse into the primary users of highly hazardous pesticides, and from whom they are obtained. Phillips McDougall’s data is one of the main sources used by the US EPA to produce its pesticide market estimates, and the company also regularly undertakes consultancies for the agrochemical industry itself.

The Phillips McDougall data is sourced from “panel data market research, farmers, trade data, country data and distributor surveys as well as proprietary, in-house databases and company results”. The data used do not cover the entire market but are sufficiently representative to estimate global sales by substance, volumes for the main user countries and Syngenta’s market share

Based on our analysis of the Phillips McDougall data, we estimate that the combined sales of all 310 pesticides included in the PAN list represent approximately 40% of the USD 54.2 billion global market, i.e. about USD 22 billion in sales in 2017. In terms of volume, we estimate the share of HHPs in worldwide pesticide use at around 60%, i.e. about 1.8 million tonnes in 2017.

Twelve of the 20 most widely sold pesticides are on PAN’s list of the highly hazardous. Altogether, those “top 12” highly hazardous pesticides account for USD 13.6 billion in sales and 1.12 million tonnes in volumes in 2017. This represents over 60% of worldwide HHP use and sales

The most widely used pesticide overall is also on the PAN list of HHPs – glyphosate, which is a herbicide (it kills weeds). Glyphosate sales reached USD 5.1 billion in 2017, which is approximately 10% of the entire global pesticide market. PAN included glyphosate in its list following its classification by IARC as probably carcinogen to humans in 2015. The EU and the USEPA have reached a counter-conclusion that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard. That was followed by allegations over the unprecedented influence exerted by the industry on those risk assessments.

But even without glyphosate, the use and sales of highly hazardous pesticides remain extremely high and represented about USD  17 billion in sales and one million tonnes in volume in 2017. This is around one third of the global pesticide market.

Lower incomes, higher toxicities

About three quarters of the pesticides classified by PAN as highly hazardous are not authorized for use in Switzerland or the European Union. This is partly the result of the adoption of new and stricter regulations during the last two decades. The EU’s 1991 Directive on the Placing of Plant Protection Products on the Market set higher standards and required companies to re-register their products. As a result, 60% of all pesticide active ingredients previously authorized for use in the EU were taken off the market.

While the EU share of worldwide pesticide use is at 13%, our analysis of the Phillips McDougall data suggests that its share of HHP use is much lower – at 5%, or about 90,000 tonnes of highly hazardous pesticides per year. Accordingly, HHPs account for about 23% of all pesticides used in the EU in terms of volumes. There is no specific data for Switzerland but the figure is likely to be similar.

The situation is completely different in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where standards are generally weaker and enforced less strictly. Our analysis of the Phillips McDougall data suggests that LMICs constitute 60% of the global market in HHP sales, some USD  13.2 billion in 2017. In terms of volume, our analysis indicates that LMICs account for about 70% of worldwide HHP use, i.e. over 1.2 million tonnes in 2017.

Brazil, China and Argentina alone account for over half of HHP use in LMICs. Those are also the countries with the largest agricultural area. But HHP use is extremely high in most LMICs. In countries such as Uruguay, Brazil or Colombia HHP use per hectare of arable land is 7-10 times higher than in the EU. The HHP share of all pesticides applied within a specific country is also generally much higher in LMICs than in the EU. In several LMICs such as Paraguay, Brazil or Uruguay, HHPs represent over 80% of volumes applied.

Peter Clausing explains this massive use of highly hazardous pesticides in LMICs as the result of two main components:

“One is that innovation by the pesticide industry is stagnating, the other is that growth is the basic ingredient of a capitalist economy. As many HHPs have been banned in the EU and also in the US, the easiest way to grow is to expand markets into new geographic areas with weak legislations.”